Motsi Mabuse: ‘People didn’t expect black people in ballgowns’

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Motsi Mabuse is remembering the rough dance halls of apartheid-era South Africa and the shocking sights she would see as she took her first tentative steps across their floors. “When we had competitions,” she says, “we didn’t have security and people would be drunk and starting fights. We were just kids and we’d watch people with knives running through while we were in the middle of a routine. Compared to that, Strictly isn’t so difficult.”

Mabuse, the newest judge on Strictly Come Dancing, first fell for the glitterball world at the age of nine after watching couples waltz, swing and cha-cha-cha while on holiday in Durban. “What I love about my parents is that they didn’t say: ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ They found a way. But we had a lot of backlash, being the only black kids. People would laugh at us and call us names. We were bullied, but we just kept on coming back – and then we beat them.”

It is a memory that suggests Mabuse was destined to find her way to Strictly: even before the BBC’s sequinned spectacular started owning Saturday night, she was living its spirit – if not going beyond it, breaking through the barriers of apartheid, one dance at a time. “People didn’t expect black people to be in ballgowns,” she adds. “We were living in segregation – we had to get separate buses to school. The doors were never open. We had to fight our way in.”

All of which gave her the thick skin you need in order to survive in the cut-throat world of competitive dance. There is certainly no shortage of big personalities on the Strictly judging panel: it’s tough to make your mark when you are up against Craig Revel Horwood’s panto villainy, Bruno Tonioli’s ants-in-his-pants camp and Shirley Ballas’s technical fastidiousness. But 38-year-old Mabuse has swiftly become known for her emotional outpourings – weeping after the Paralympian Will Bayley’s routine and barely disguising her annoyance when fellow South African professional Johannes Radebe and actor Catherine Tyldesley were voted out. And then there is her penchant for a glamorous ballgown and her sleekly coiffed hair.

Yet, when we meet in a London hotel, Mabuse is wearing a red quilted jacket and eating a full English breakfast. Minus her glittery nails, she gestures instead with forkfuls of bacon and sausage. “This is really me,” she says. “That’s a different person on screen.”

Mabuse is no newcomer to judging, having been on the panel of Let’s Dance, Germany’s version of Strictly, for the past 11 years. Her sister, Oti, is one of the pros on Strictly, and the pair joked that Motsi should replace Darcey Bussell when she stepped down last year. And then, just weeks later, Motsi got the call. “I couldn’t believe it,” she laughs.Advertisement

Strictly regularly tops 10 million viewers, so the pressure is on for Mabuse, especially as she admits she doesn’t speak English that well after living in Germany for 20 years. “The tabloids are intense,” she says. “People said I would be too biased towards my sister. But I live in my own bubble.” She has received messages accusing her of being too flamboyant and, when she was first hired, the former Dancing on Ice judge Louie Spence called her a “nobody”, accusing the BBC of “box-ticking” for diversity.

There has also been speculation about rifts between the Mabuse sisters, with papers claiming they “never” see each other despite being on the same show. Motsi maintains they are still on good terms: “Oti has been so supportive. After the first show we were both in tears, so proud of each other.” Similar suggestions have been raised about her relationship with Ballas. “Shirley and I have respect for where we come from – a dance world which is very male-dominated. We’re tough girls.”

She may know the drill when it comes to judging, but she finds the British “far more fast-paced. Working here has taught me the meaning of professionalism.” What about her relationship with the other judges? “Everyone is very nice, but we’re all artists, so we give each other space.” They only really see each other for rehearsals and recording the show.

In 2000, Mabuse moved to Germany to dance competitively. She went on to marry her Ukrainian dance partner, Evgenij Voznyuk, and they now live near Hamburg with their 15-month-old daughter. Initially, she didn’t encounter any issues there, but she now feels the country is far more divided. “I don’t get that involved in politics because I’m in my dance bubble,” she says, but she does feel that diversity is treated as a “fad” in Germany. “In Britain, it feels part of your history. In Germany, it feels as if it’s just fashionable for now. In three years, who knows what the country will look like? I just want my daughter to grow up in a society where she feels accepted being South African, German and Ukrainian.”

Mabuse was 18 when she left for Germany. Oti, who was eight at the time, followed her to Hamburg 10 years later, for dance training. “It was great when she came to me,” says Mabuse, “as I finally had my family closer. In a way, it is easier to be the younger sibling, as the older one has to pave the way.”

Breakfast half-finished, Mabuse is warming up, transforming into the high-energy persona we’re used to seeing on TV. “I’m actually very emotional,” she says, “but I always had to be strong because of my childhood and the competitiveness of the dance world. I learned that by being emotional on screen, people can relate. You end up helping them express themselves. That was something my husband showed me. He said: ‘You don’t have to be strong all the time.’ So now I’m just me.”Advertisement

Mabuse has been commuting from Germany to London for Strictly each week. “It’s been difficult for me leaving my daughter,” she says. “I didn’t know how I was going to deal with being without her, but I’ve got my mother and my husband’s family looking after her as a team now – that’s just the reality of being a working woman.”

To an outsider, the world of ballroom can seem intensely pressurised, if not brutal, despite all the smiles, spangles and fake tan. Mabuse feels it is harder now than ever. “We used to travel to dance throughout Europe and spend weeks at a time with each other, so you would make lots of friends. Today, though, the dance world is at war. It’s all egos, money-making and politics.”

‘We’re tough girls’ ... Mabuse with fellow Strictly judge Shirley Ballas.
 ‘We’re tough girls’ … Mabuse with fellow Strictly judge Shirley Ballas. Photograph: David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

Mabuse says rival competitions and schools make it harder for younger dancers to make a living, forcing them to specialise early on and thereby limiting their options. “I was lucky because I went straight from dancing into TV, but it’s much harder for the younger generation. In Germany, they don’t really have recognition for artists – it’s all still business, law and economics that people study.”

Mabuse believes Strictly can give dancers a second wind. “When I started dancing, it was clear that when you retired, probably in your early 30s, you could only go on to teach. Every dancer suffers some kind of depression because they’re starting from scratch. Now, Strictly has given us another way out.”

Her role as a woman of colour on the show has also been inspirational to many. “I get messages from young girls asking for advice,” she says, “and even from celebrities of colour here who I’ve never met, just thanking me for raising visibility.”

The show can transform the lives of the celebrities, too, she says, particularly when it comes to same-sex dancing. Strictly aired its first such performance last month when Radebe and Graziano di Prima, two male pros, did spins and lifts, beaming at each other throughout. The segment drew almost 200 complaints from viewers. What these people were doing watching the campest show on TV, we’ll never know.

“It’s a big deal over nothing,” says Mabuse, who is keen for this breakthrough to filter into the show’s competition side. “It’s time. There’s no stopping same-sex dancing couples. I don’t understand how people being happy can affect others so much – just let them be. Can we get rid of all these labels? It’s just people having relationships. I prefer to eat English breakfast today and muesli tomorrow – but it’s still breakfast. We’re humans. That’s my take on it.”

A car arrives to take Mabuse away. “When this show started,” she says, with a final flourish of her fork, “people thought it was a joke, that no one would be interested in celebrities dancing. But now look. Half of the country is watching me!”

Written by: Ammar Kalia

First published 25.12.19: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/dec/25/motsi-mabuse-people-didnt-expect-black-people-in-ballgowns

 

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